Late 20th century art that includes a great variety of styles, so is hard to define but is often characterised as a reaction against the formalism perceived to dominate Modernism. In architecture, it describes a style which borrows from many different traditions and which contrasts with the clarity and simplicity of many modernist buildings.

Steven Campbell Ding Dong Estimated earliest year: 1968 © THE ESTATE OF STEVEN CAMPBELL

The term Postmodernism is applied to a range of arts, architecture, criticism and philosophy from the last half of the twentieth century, which marked a departure from Modernism. Where Modernism was defined by utopian purity and simplicity, Postmodernists embraced plurality, appropriating earlier styles and conventions, often with self-awareness and irony.

Postmodern Architecture

In the mid-1970s the term was predominantly applied to architectural styles that moved away from the simplicity of Modernism towards more complex structures referencing a range of styles, sources and cultures. Cultural theorist, landscape designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks has been closely linked to Postmodern architecture, which he discussed in The Language of Postmodern Architecture, 1977.

Postmodernism in the Visual Arts

By the 1980s the term came into regular use in visual arts and design. Some artists drew on popular culture, while others placed dissimilar objects together such as text with images, or objects with graphics, with many engaged directly in social and political issues. Judy Chicago was one of a number who deliberately and consciously broke away from the limitations of formalism, as seen in her politically charged installation, The Dinner Party, 1974-79. Others saw Postmodernism as a continuation of the experimental spirit in Dada, Surrealism, Pop and Conceptual Art, such as American conceptualist Lawrence Weiner.

French writer Jean Baudrillard has been referred to as the ‘high priest of postmodernism’, who defined key Postmodern concepts, particularly in Simulacra and Simulation, 1981. He reflected on the mass media and its influx of ‘simulated’ imagery, resulting in a second hand version of reality up for grabs by artists, designers and thinkers. American critic and theorist Fredric Jameson also became known for his analysis of Postmodernism, particularly in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991, in which he argued that postmodernity was defined by pastiche and a crisis in historicity. He wrote, ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.’

Neo Expressionism and Postmodernism

The Neo Expressionist style is now closely affiliated with Postmodernism, including works by Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Steven Campbell, who superimposed unconventional found images and objects into their paintings. Postmodern artists have also explored the complexities of identity in the late twentieth century through various practices, raising issues including sexuality, race, ethnicity and death. Female identity has been a recurring subject for women artists, particularly in America since the 1970s, including work by Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer. Sherman makes alternative self-portraits in which she remodels herself as exaggerated or comical characters from films, paintings or magazines, bringing into question familiar historical or contemporary archetypes.

Artists

Charles Jencks
born 1939
Steven Campbell
1953 - 2007
Lawrence Weiner
born 1942
Cindy Sherman
born 1954
Jenny Holzer
born 1950

Glossary terms

  • Art in which the idea takes precedence over its manifestation in visual form. It emerged in the 1960s and was often concerned with the nature of art and the use of language.

  • A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.

  • A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the 20th century.

  • An art movement of the 1950s to the 1970s that was primarily based in Britain and the United States. Pop artists are so called because of their use of imagery from popular culture. They also introduced techniques and materials from the commercial world, such as screen-printing, to fine art practice.